We started providing welfare rights advice to clients of the Tower Hamlets Foodbank as part of First Love Foundation’s Advice & Support project almost three years ago, thanks to help from the Pears Foundation. It’s now been a year since the project was scaled up with support from the Big Lottery Fund and I joined the team.
So, a year in, I thought I’d share what we’ve seen and what we’ve learnt. The majority of the clients we have seen have been affected by the following benefit issues:
- Failing to attend their work capability assessments (WCA)
- Being found fit for work after not scoring enough points at a WCA
- Failing the genuine prospect of work (GPOW) test
- Sanctions in their jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) claims
We have also seen a number of clients with children who have separated from their partner because of domestic violence. The child benefit claim is often in the partner’s name and this means that until the child benefit claim has been changed to be paid to the client, they are unable to claim Income Support. As it can take several weeks for the child benefit to be put into the client’s name, this means that clients are without money unless they claim JSA in the interim. We are currently working on a report which highlights this particular issue.
One lone parent had fled to the UK from Ireland where she had been a victim of domestic violence. She had three children, one of whom has significant levels of autism. When initially seen, our client had no income. We assisted her to make appropriate claims for income support, child benefit, child tax credit and disability living allowance.
When she was moved to expensive temporary accommodation and therefore subject to the benefit cap we liaised with Tower Hamlets council to get her a discretionary housing payment to cover the shortfall in her rent. It was the threat of legal action from us that prompted the HMRC to act to end the delay in awarding child benefit and child tax credit which resulted in prompt payment. The disability living allowance for the autistic child was refused under a rule that requires a claimant to have lived in the UK for 2 out of the last 3 years. We assisted our client to appeal against that decision on the basis that the time she had spent in Ireland to counted towards meeting this test. The DWP conceded this point. As a result of our assistance our client received approximately £20,000 of arrears in benefits. In addition, her weekly income has increased by around £176. She is now looking to commence work as a midwife.
We also took part in First Love Foundation’s Summer Meals scheme, also in Tower Hamlets. The summer break has a significant and negative impact on children and families on low incomes. Those who rely on free school meals during term time find it difficult to afford to provide extra meals for their children during the summer holidays. Families experiencing this and other forms of crisis are referred to the scheme. They come to weekly sessions where they are given food support and there are also activities for the children and parents to engage in. Our role was to provide benefit checks for all the families who attended and we were successful in maximising the incomes of some of these families who we would not ordinarily have been referred to the normal foodbank sessions.
Over the course of the past year, we have built a strong and effective relationship with the staff and volunteers at First Love Foundation. Since January of this year, they opened a new Foodbank session in Stepney where we also help to provide Advice & Support. This is an evening session aimed at including clients who may be unable to get to the foodbank during the day because they are working or have other daytime commitments.
We have been able to help a substantial number of clients who have come to the foodbank – these include successfully representing clients at tribunal in cases relating to the GPOW, being found fit for work and failing to attend WCA’s.
One involved a client with both physical and mental health issues who had been in the support group but then failed her WCA at a review. We assisted her with the appeal and represented her at the tribunal and she was placed in the support group again and received arrears of over £500.
Another case involved a client whose ESA had stopped because she had failed to attend a medical. Our client had not received the invitations to the medical, nor the letter asking her why she had not attended. We helped her to prepare her case and represented her at the tribunal: her appeal was successful and she received arrears of approximately £900. In addition, we have been able to secure significant amounts of housing benefit, including arrears, which have helped our clients to remain in their homes.
We have also obtained feedback from the clients we have worked with and found that they feel better in themselves and more financially secure as a result of the services they have received.
The clients who come to the weekly sessions are not expecting any benefits advice when they arrive and can be embarrassed or upset at being there in the first place, wanting to get their food and leave as quickly as possible. This can make the sessions really tough, especially when there are a number of clients with acute and complex problems.
The casework can also be challenging and, with the continual changes due to welfare reform, there is always a lot to learn. However, it has been really interesting and rewarding working with First Love Foundation on their Advice & Support project over the past year and I am looking forward to the work we will be doing for the remaining two years of the project.